DAVID SANBORN: Let's Talk About Sax?!!
Very few players are so closely identified with their instrument that they overshadow their peers. Nevertheless, the iconic David Sanborn truly merits his singular position as an unrivalled saxophonist who straddles the jazz, soul, pop and rock worlds while simultaneously commanding respect in all four.
With his three-and-a-half-decade career having seen him appearing on albums ranging from Stevie Wonder’s 1973 seminal ‘Talking Book’ and rock megastar Bruce Springsteen’s landmark ‘Born To Run’ through to rap icon GURU’s groundbreaking ‘Jazzmatazz, Vol. 4’ (not to mention his famed standout solo on David Bowie’s 1975 funk-rock smash ‘Young Americans’), six-time Grammy-winner Sanborn has also consistently recorded his own solo albums. Indeed, the 30- years between his 1975 debut ‘Taking Off’ and 2005’s acclaimed ‘Closer’ saw him rarely go two years between releases. A prolific habit barely broken by the three years that have just elapsed between the aforementioned ‘Closer’ and his latest (and, amazingly, 23rd!) LP ‘Here And Gone’. Which in turn sees Sanborn return to his bluesy, R&B roots while collaborating with such esteemed guests as English rock god Eric Clapton; Sixties soul legend Sam Moore; Allman Brothers Band guitarist Derek Trucks; and UK-raised, globally-successful blue-eyed soulstress Joss Stone.
“This new album (produced by the legendary Phil Ramone, of Burt Bacharach and Ray Charles fame) was just really the result of me downloading things onto my i-pod that were in my collection”, begins a personable David, relaxing amidst the opulence of a friend’s spacious Ladbroke Grove villa: “And, when I got to the (influential blues/R&B saxophonist) Hank Crawford part of the repertoire, I was like ‘Woah, I haven’t really explored this music for a while!’. So I kinda found myself just lingering over the music and trying to reconnect with its spirit, and the essence of what I’d felt at the time I’d FIRST heard it. I basically found myself kind of being back there just fucking around, playing some of the tunes and generally just re-engaging with the material. And, before I knew it, things just came together in terms of the musical concept for this album - though definitely not in a premeditated way. Basically it all started around the song ’What Will I Tell My Heart’, which in turn became an anchor for the other stuff. So, in retrospect, I guess it all came out of re-examining some of this music and trying to connect with the essence of what it did, and still does, represent for me.”
While the influence of aforementioned fellow alto saxophonist Crawford is felt directly through three new versions of his old recordings (‘Stoney Lonesome’; ‘What Will I Tell My Heart’’; ‘Please Send Me Someone To Love’), David is keen to emphasise that he does not see ‘Here & Now’ as merely a trip down memory lane: “Hank was a great saxophonist and arranger for Ray Charles in the Fifties and early Sixties, and his arrangements and playing were central to me in forming my ideas about what music was and should be”, continues the soft-spoken Sanborn: “But, at the same time, I don’t think of this album as nostalgia. It’s not about ‘Oh, it was great back then’. Because this style of music is LIVING music to me. It’s always BEEN part of me, and always WILL be. So really it’s more about me accessing a certain part of the brain. You know, I never wanna go back and just create an imitation! I always wanna be in the process of evolving and growing. I’m a different PERSON now than when I first heard this music. So I can’t POSSIBLY go back there! Instead, the record merely represents the spiritual and emotional space that I was in after listening to Hank Crawford’s music. Just like back in 1992, when I released a really funky album called ‘Upfront’ after I’d been listening to a lot of James Brown.”
Meanwhile, the album’s close connection with Ray Charles continues through several covers, including a gritty, powerful take on ‘I Believe It To My Soul’, bluesily vocalled by the aforementioned Joss Stone: “Well, to me she’s just an extraordinary musician”, enthuses David: “I mean, how this sound comes out of this young woman from Devon, England is just MAGIC! It’s DIVINE! To me it’s some kind of transcendental reality, that she’s able access the essence of that spirit so well. And it really makes you aware of the fact that there is universality to this music. I mean, the first time I heard her, I was like ‘Woah, this is something special!`. So, as the project evolved, it was like ‘Oh, Joss Stone! Hook it up!’. And, as remarkable as her talent is in itself, the fact that she took this song - which was sung clearly from a man’s point of view initially by Ray Charles - and inhabited it so completely that it became a woman’s song, to me shows that she does have a real, true gift. Because she wasn’t doing an imitation! The song became HERS! You know, it takes a forceful talent to take a song that Ray Charles not only WROTE but really DEFINED, and put your own identity on it. So I genuinely feel really privileged to have had her on this record.”
Born in Tampa, Florida in 1945 but raised in St. Louis, Missouri, Sanborn openly recalls how blues musicians made a deep impact on his hometown’s music scene during his early years: “While St. Louis is technically regarded as part of the Mid-West, it’s actually - geographically and emotionally - more part of the South”, he explains: “I mean, the sensibility of St. Louis is really very much that of a Southern Mississippi river-town. So a lotta music came up from New Orleans and Memphis. You know, usually the river boats would travel up there and go back. And, for a lotta the blues musicians from the Mississippi delta, St. Louis would be a stop on the way and be part of the circuit that they’d play. So, when I was a kid, there was always a very strong blues basis to the music that inhabited St. Louis.”
From a more personal standpoint, meanwhile, David’s own early fascination with rhythm & blues music came about through a severe childhood illness: “Yeah, I had polio when was around three years old. I was actually in an iron lung for about a year, and then I was paralysed from the neck down for another year after that. So I spent a lotta time just lying down as a kid”, he recalls soberly: “And some of my earliest memories from then are of listening to the radio. Especially late at night, with all the lights off, and just hearing these great songs coming outta the darkness. I’d be like ‘Wow! There’s a whole WORLD going on out there!’! And, with my growing up in the mid-Fifties - which was really the early days of rock & roll and rhythm & blues - the people that were big on the radio back then were Fats Domino, Ray Charles, Little Richard, Chuck Berry… So, very early on, without really knowing it - because I couldn’t really move around physically - I’d go to this imaginary place in my head that this music would be a big part of.”
Even more unusually, it was actually his illness that led Sanborn to first pick up a saxophone: “When I was 11 years old, the doctors recommended to my parents that I play a wind instrument for therapy. And, with rock & roll back then being all about SAX solos not GUITAR solos - Bill Haley, Fats Domino, Ray Charles, Little Richard - I was like ‘Damn, let me play the SAXOPHONE!’! So I chose the alto, because it was smaller. And - once I’d heard Hank Crawford play at a show after a basketball game - that pretty much sealed the deal for me! I gradually started learning to play by playing along with the records. And, with a lotta the regional blues bands like Albert King and Little Milton coming through the St. Louis area to perform at these dances they called Teen-Towns, I’d often go sit at the bandstand to watch them play.”
“Then one day this drummer-friend of mine got up the nerve to ask Little Milton if I could sit in with him!”, continues David, now in full flow: “He very kindly agreed. So at 15, here I was up onstage with this great blues singer/guitar player and thinking to myself ‘This is fuckin` great! This is the job I WANT!’… After that, I ended up doing some gigs with Albert King. And that’s how it all started for me! Then, in 1967, I went to San Francisco to visit a friend. While I was there, I ran into Phil Watson of The Butterfield Blues Band (a combo which historically mixed Chicago blues with a soul-band horn section). After meeting him, I went down to LA to watch him and his group record - and somehow I managed to con my way into the band! So I ended up playing with them for five years! And then, from there, I went on to tour with Stevie Wonder for a coupla years.”
Which in turn directly led to Sanborn’s celebrated sax solo on ‘Tuesday Heartbreak’ from Stevie’s aforementioned iconic ‘Talking Book’ album: “OK, I’m gonna tell you the story about ‘Talking Book’!”, retorts a laughing, now-animated David: “It was 1972. I was on the road with Stevie. We were opening for The Rolling Stones. We were in LA and we all, with the exception of Stevie, went to this party up in the house that Mick Jagger was renting. We all got pretty deeply involved in the party aspect of it all - let’s just say it was done in the spirit of the times! And I think I ended up getting back to the hotel-room around six or seven in the morning. Anyway, 10 o’clock my phone rings - and it’s the producer Bob Margouleff. He says ‘You gotta go to the studio right away. Stevie wants you to play on this tune’. I’m like ‘Are you fuckin’ kidding? What TIME is it, man?’… So, I just throw on some clothes, get in the cab, and go to the studio. I walk in there, they say ‘Put the headphones on. We’re gonna play you this song.’… So I put the headphones on, they get a little sound on me, they play the tune - and I’m kinda learning the song while I’m playing it. I get to the end of it, and they say ‘That’s great! That’s OK!’... I’m like ‘What do you MEAN? We’re DONE? I just learned the song! We have to do it AGAIN!’. And Bob’s like ‘No, we haven’t got TIME!’… So that was IT!”
“I was back in the hotel by 11”, he continues with a smile: “I go back to sleep... Then, when I wake up, I half-remember something happened, but think I may have dreamt it. Anyway, next thing I know, the record comes out, there I am on there - and I’m like ‘OH FUCK!’! Because I just hear myself learning this song! And it’s like, even to this day, every time I hear that tune I CRINGE! Because, while some people seem to regard it as a classic solo, to me it’s just a PRACTICE! It’s like having somebody watch me brush my teeth! Which is something I probably didn’t ever DO before I played that fucker!”
The album 'Here & Gone' is out now through Decca Records
Words PETE LEWIS